After the successful conclusion of the Faith and Freedom Summit, held in the European Parliament and attended by both the EU’s Special Envoy for the Promotion of Religion outside the EU, Jan Figel and the OSCE’s Senior Advisor on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Kishan Manocha – both key speakers, the Summit has launched for a very promising year to come.
The key focus of the summit, a coalition of 18 NGOs (and growing), is the promotion and protection of freedom of religion and belief within the European Union. So it is vital to understand why such an orientation.
We live in the world in general and in Europe in particular, in times of uncertainty that need messages and moral responses that do not have to coincide with what the majority decides, because truth and beauty shine by themselves. Without wishing to be exhaustive, among the challenges posed to Europe that are on the table we can mention three: dignity, community challenge and equality.
Now we need to ensure freedom of religion or belief in the EU member states, in and emanating from European Union institutions. We need to uphold and defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out against bigotry, discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the reason for the Faith and Freedom Summit campaign.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which binds the 47 member-states of the Council of Europe including the 28 members of the European Union ("the EU"). It is only in the last twenty years that the European Court of Human Rights ("the ECHR") has been seized of applications alleging a violation of Article 9, taken alone or in combination with other articles of the Convention or its additional protocols. Most are declared inadmissible for various reasons.
We sometimes forget that first and foremost in our community of people living together we should be protecting the spirituality of individuals (from a religious perspective) or the individual’s utmost integrity (from a non-religious view) above and beyond the dictates of the state and other individuals who have throughout history risen to positions of power within a state and used such structures to restrict and enslave one’s fellows.
It is important for all EU nations to realize how serious the many cases are within their own boundaries. Not one EU nation complies with all FoRB laws and agreements. The ECHR in Strasbourg is understaffed in its ability to handle the myriad of cases. At the same time EU nations find it much easier to point the finger at non-EU nations. And while we are glad these fingers are pointed, there is a special need amongst EU nations to work together and support each other on the road to complete Religious Freedom, tolerance of believer and non-believer, and even respectfully disagree with others.
Another profound problem is that the freedom of religion, as well as other basic rights, is subject to numerous conditions and derogations in European human rights treaties. This tendency has led to a debasement of fundamental freedoms. The European Convention on Human Rights, set up as a bulwark against totalitarianism, confirmed that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” But the Convention says this freedom can be limited in the interests of "public safety...the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
Freedom of religion or belief is a crucial right, and its respect reveals a great deal about the attitude of a country toward freedom in general. This is because what people believe is their most ultimate freedom. Their link to God, or to the ultimate sense of life, and the expression of these inner beliefs are the most profound richness of a human being. This is what gives a sense to our life, whether we are religious or non-religious, and what allows us to deal with all other freedoms in the frame of what we choose to believe, or not to believe.
In today’s Europe, there are still too many people who want to make use of FoRB for their own religious or world view community and enjoy that, but do not seek and defend it for others. It is a noble task for any member of the European Parliament to help to spread the idea, that FoRB for others is the best way to protect one’s own FoRB and that FoRB for all is a road to a peaceful society.
Human rights are Alpha and Omega for any democratic land to function but if we want to give lessons to countries outside EU on religious freedom, its own record at home needs to be beyond reproach. In today’s cosmopolitan and interconnected world, Europe cannot and must not have double standards when it comes to religious freedom and rights of those who do not subscribe to majority norms by peacefully practicing their own faiths.